Wednesday, January 23, 2008

the State of Conference Realignment

One of the ideas that gets bantered about with regards to improving college football is rearranging the conferences. As we usually do here, we’re going to look at this realistically, not wishfully. By examining a few key areas, we can gauge how likely a conference is to add or lose schools in the near future. Some of these issues are…

  • Equilibrium – Is the conference at a stable number of schools?
  • Tradition – Recognize this one? Yeah, it’s a major player everywhere in college football
  • Fit & Type – Will potential joinees fit in with the current lineup of schools? This doesn’t only take athletics into account but other institutional and educational factors as well
  • Transition – How often have teams joined/left the league in the past 30 years?
  • Geography – Where are all of the schools in the conference located?

The Big 5 – stable BCS conferences

These BCS conferences each have their own unique identity, but they also have a lot in common. The overwhelming majority of their schools are flagship universities and/or major research institutions, grouped geographically, and have a long history together. Schools don't leave these conferences - they want to get in them. (The last time a school left one of these five was in 1971 when South Carolina left the ACC.) When they add schools, they only add ones which are an extremely good fit with their existing members. With one small exception, these five conferences have a 0% chance of changing in the near future.

SEC - est. 1933
Schooljoined conf.Schooljoined conf.
Floridacharter memberLSUcharter member
Georgiacharter memberAlabamacharter member
Tennesseecharter memberAuburncharter member
Kentuckycharter memberMississippicharter member
Vanderbiltcharter memberMississippi Statecharter member
South Carolina1992Arkansas1992

The SEC, made up of big, southern, state institutions (with Vanderbilt as the token private school), has been the model of consistency. The universities have been around for hundreds of years and like the way they do things just fine, thank you very much. Even a major shakeup of the NCAA as a whole might not affect the composition of the SEC (if there's one thing they know, it's how to secede).

Pac 10 - est. 1959
Schooljoined conf.Schooljoined conf.
Californiacharter memberWashington State1962
Stanfordcharter memberOregon1964
USCcharter memberOregon State1964
UCLAcharter memberArizona1978
Washingtoncharter memberArizona State1978

The Pac 10 is the gemini conference, made up of twin universities in each state/region of the west, and it has remained unchanged for 30 years. There's a lot of people who would like to see the conference add two more members to make 12, but that's just not going to happen - ten is the number of balance for this conference. One of the main reasons the Pac 10 won't add two more schools is that the presidents of these universities don't feel that any other schools in the west measure up to their institutions' high "Research I" standards. Whether or not that's true doesn't matter - it's what they believe. And this group of university presidents is about as tightly knit as you're going to find in the NCAA. They're probably more unified than any other group of administrators in their conference-wide decision making, and they're unified against not expanding further.

ACC - est. 1953
Schooljoined conf.Schooljoined conf.
Dukecharter memberVirginia1953
Marylandcharter memberGeorgia Tech1978
North Carolinacharter memberFlorida State1992
NC Statecharter memberMiami (FL)2004
Clemsoncharter memberVirginia Tech2004
Wake Forestcharter memberBoston College2005

The ACC has been around for over 50 years, though they have changed more in makeup than any of these other "big 5" conferences in the past few years. But their additions made sense, both athletically, academically, and (though BC is a bit of a stretch) geographically, and all of the schools fit well in the conference. At 12 teams, this conference is stable - they won't add any more schools and none of the current ones are going to leave for anywhere else.

Big 12 - est. 1996
Schoolprevious conf, member sinceSchoolprevious conf, member since
Iowa StateBig 8, 1928OklahomaBig 8, 1928
KansasBig 8, 1928Oklahoma StateBig 8, 1960
Kansas StateBig 8, 1928TexasSouthwest, 1915
MissouriBig 8, 1928Texas A&MSouthwest, 1915
NebraskaBig 8, 1928BaylorSouthwest, 1915
ColoradoBig 8, 1948Texas TechSouthwest,1960

Even though the Big 12 has only been around for 12 years, the schools it's composed of have had about as stable of a conference experience as you can get. The Big 8 was around for nearly 70 years before the addition of the Texas teams from the old Southwest conference, which was even older than said Big 8. Geographically the merger made sense as well. If you're going to start a new conference from scratch, this is how you want to do it. They're not changing.

Big 10 - est. 1896
Schooljoined conf.Schooljoined conf.
Illinoischarter memberIndiana1900
Michigancharter memberIowa1900
Minnesotacharter memberOhio State1912
Northwesterncharter memberMichigan State1953
Purduecharter memberPenn State1993
Wisconsincharter member

The Big 10 is the oldest conference in existence and started the trend toward not only conferences but schools' overall athletic oversight. Most arguments for change to the conference are trumped by the sheer amount of history and institutional similarities. Northwestern is the only one which doesn't fit the flagship mold (being the token smaller, private school), but they've been associated with the conference since the beginning. The addition of Penn State in 1993 made perfect sense too, and the conference has only benefitted from their inclusion. The thing about the Big 10 is that even if others may see having 11 members as unbalanced, for the most part they're just fine with it. They're certainly not going to add any old school just to get to 12 - any institution they add will have to fit in as well as Penn State did in the early 90's. And the only one they could possibly add that would fit that bill is Notre Dame.

The Big 10 university presidents have considered it more than once in the recent past, and it's something that's (seemingly) always on the table. Will it ever happen? Maybe. But it would take a lot of pieces falling perfectly into place. Pieces such as...
*Notre Dame continuing to get beaten on the gridiron. When the Irish win, college football prospers, and the BCS basically has no choice but to give them special status. The more they lose, the more vulnerable they are.
*The other conferences must decide to revoke their special BCS status. Until they do, there's no reason for the Irish to join a conference.
*Notre Dame must need the Big 10 more than the Big 10 needs Notre Dame. It's likely that the Irish's other 22 athletic teams would benefit from and be a better fit competing in the Big 10 (rather than the Big East where they've been since 1995). But it would take a lot for the school to swallow it's pride and let the football team join a conference. They've been independent their whole existence, and that's a part of their identity.

If the Big 10 adds a school, it'll be Notre Dame. If Notre Dame joins a conference, it'll be the Big 10. Simple as that.

The Big East – BCS Loner

Big East (Football) - est. 1991
1991-2003Miami (FL)Virginia TechBoston CollegeTempleSyracusePitt.West VirginiaRutgers
2004Boston CollegeTempleSyracusePitt.West VirginiaRutgersUConn
2005-nowSyracusePitt.West VirginiaRutgersUConnLouisvilleUSFCincinnati

Here's the thing about the Big East - it's a basketball conference and some of the schools play football too. That isn't to say they don't play it well, because they do. But basketball, along with the departures of Miami, Virginia Tech, & Boston College to the ACC (which weakened the conference's football reputation significantly), are the main reasons that the Big East is now stuck at the bottom of the BCS. So what are they going to do?

Georgetown and Villanova play AA football, so should they just move up to division I-A? Nope. That would bring the whole conference down further with regards to football. Should they invite more powerhouse football schools to the conference? Can't, really - the Big East is already at 16 strong when it comes to basketball and other sports. They're not going to grow (and dilute) the conference as a whole just to strengthen the football side. Well, why don't they just invite or force Notre Dame to join for football too? Yeah right - Notre Dame football will never, ever join the Big East. Never. Okay, so why not add some schools for football only? Name one school that would join for football only that would be worth adding. There are none. Hmmm... so why don't some of the current Big East schools just join a different conference? One, because there are no spots available in better (BCS) conferences, and two, because all of them have solid basketball programs which benefit greatly by playing in the Big East. Miami, BC, and VT had an opportunity to move up football-wise and laterally basketball-wise, and they took it. Nobody else in the Big East is going to get that opportunity. Therefore the Big East is stuck.

Are they going to get their BCS status revoked, as was whispered a few years back? Just like Notre Dame, probably not unless their big programs completely tank and fall off the national scene during the next few BCS cycles. There's little chance of that happening, and little chance of them moving up or down the ladder.

(Addition: As one commenter wrote - what about Memphis? Yeah, I can see the Big East trying to grab them. They'd be a boost to the already strong basketball reputation, though the effect on the football side of things probably wouldn't help as much. I'm not arguing that it's impossible for the conference to expand, I'm saying that it would take some effort and there's few schools out there that would make it worthwhile.)

Solid – The 2 stable, non-BCS conferences

Mountain West - est. 1999
Schooljoined conf.Schooljoined conf.
Utahcharter memberColorado Statecharter member
Wyomingcharter memberBrigham Youngcharter member
San Diego Statecharter memberNew Mexicocharter member
Air Forcecharter memberUNLVcharter member
Texas Christian2005

The Mountain West has done well building itself over the past ten years. And I don't mean adding schools, I mean building tradition, rivalries, a stable base, and a conference identity that schools aren't just going to up and run from when the first opportunity presents itself. Want proof? The ballsy MountainWest Sports Network the conference started when it felt that ESPN wasn't giving it a fair TV deal. A weak conference wouldn't have attempted it, but they did - good for them.

Here's the thing - they're trying to position themselves as a premier football conference, ie, they want to be one of the BCS big boys. None of the schools are going to leave with that opportunity knocking, and anybody they add is going to have to make those BCS hopes stronger. They're not going to pick an up-and-comer from AA, they're going to go for an established, successful DI-A team. That school still has to be in the Rocky Mountains or close by, realistically. Get where I'm going with this? Boise State. They've got the track record, they can possibly bring the Humanitarian bowl with them (giving the conference 6 bowl tie-ins), and they've only been in the WAC since 2001. The only other school I can see the MtnWest inviting to join is Fresno State, which has been solid in football, competing with the BCS teams every year in non-conference games. So will the Mtn West ever get its BCS wish granted? It's possible, depending on how the next few BCS cycles go...

MAC - est. 1947
Schooljoined conf.Schooljoined conf.
Ohio U.charter memberCentral Michigan1972
Miami (OH)1948Eastern Michigan1972
Western Michigan1948Ball State1973
Kent State1951Akron1992
Toledo1951Northern Illinois1997
Bowling Green1952Buffalo1999

Gotta give the MAC credit - they know who they are and they've stuck with it. Made up mainly of good schools that are dwarfed in most ways (especially athletically) by flagship neighbors, they've found their niche and are happy in it. Sure they'd like to have more inclusion in the BCS, but they're not going to fight tooth and nail to become more elite. They've added some schools in recent decades, but whereas the Big 10 might be like the full-of-himself doorman who gruffly asks "Why should we let you in?", the MAC is more like the cool, easy-going guy who just shrugs and says "Eh, why not? Want a beer?" Akron fits with the other Ohio schools, Northern Illinois fits, Buffalo fits, Temple (who is currently being added) doesn't not fit.

So what are the chances that the MAC changes? They could lose some schools, it's happened, but the schools that have left recently (Central Florida, Marshall) were only part of the conference for a few years and are still trying to find their athletic-conference identity. I don't see any of the current group picking up for somewhere else, if only because it probably wouldn't make sense geographically. As far as adding schools goes, the MAC was at a stable 10 before they decided to add Northern Illinois in 1997, and they were at a stable 12 before they decided to add Temple. Maybe the MAC's number of balance is 14 - who knows. Let's think about who's a good fit geographically... Instinct points to Marshall, but that already didn't work. I can't imagine any other school that's already DI-A. Western Kentucky? Maybe, if the Sun Belt thing doesn't work. Maybe one of the other Illinois schools that does well in AA football, or possibly Northern Iowa. I'd say the chance they add another school in the next 5-7 years is pretty good, if only because they're so welcoming.

Musical Chairs – The 3 unstable, non-BCS conferences

C-USA - est. 1996
1997CincinnatiLouisvilleHoustonSou.MissMemphisTulaneE. Carolina
1998CincinnatiLouisvilleHoustonSou.MissMemphisTulaneE. CarolinaArmy
1999-2000CincinnatiLouisvilleHoustonSou.MissMemphisTulaneE. CarolinaUABArmy
2001-2002CincinnatiLouisvilleHoustonSou.MissMemphisTulaneE. CarolinaUABArmyTCU
2003-2004CincinnatiLouisvilleHoustonSou.MissMemphisTulaneE. CarolinaUABArmyTCUUSF
2005-nowHoustonSou.MissMemphisTulaneE. CarolinaUAB

Conference USA has had a rocky life, to say the least. In the first 10 years of it's football existence, it had 7 different lineups of schools, adding roughly one a year or so until 2005 when it lost (arguably) its top 5 programs to the Big East, Mtn West, and independence. They added 6 to get to a stable 12-school lineup, but it's quite the mix-n-match bunch. 4 private and 8 public schools, ranging in size from 5,000 to 50,000 students, stretching from west Texas to east Carolina. It's been the same makeup for the last three years, so it doesn't look like things will be changing any time soon, but I wouldn't rule it out. Nobody from the BCS conferences would drop down to join them, though there is some wiggle room within the other non-BCS conferences.

WAC - est. 1962
1980-1991BYUSan Diego StateUtahNew MexicoColorado St.WyomingAir ForceUTEPHawaii
1992-1995BYUSan Diego StateUtahNew MexicoColorado St.WyomingAir ForceUTEPHawaiiFresno St.
1996-1998BYUSan Diego StateUtahNew MexicoColorado St.WyomingAir ForceUTEPHawaiiFresno St.
TulsaSan Jose St.UNLVRiceTCUSMU
1999-2000TulsaSan Jose St.RiceTCUSMUNevadaUTEPHawaiiFresno St.
2001-2004TulsaLA TechBoise St.RiceSan Jose St.SMUNevadaUTEPHawaiiFresno St.
2005-nowLA TechBoise St.Utah StateSan Jose St.IdahoNevadaN.Mex.St.HawaiiFresno St.

Poor WAC. They've been around for a long while, but they grew too big and weren't able to sustain. For three seasons in the late 90's, the WAC was at 16 teams, obviously not its number of balance. 8 of the teams split off to form the Mtn West, and what hurt even more was that 4 of those teams were charter members of the WAC who had been in the conference for 30+ years. For the last ten years, this conference has been trying to regain/find its identity, and it's not working out so well. They're basically the western U.S. version of C-USA but without the stable number, having only 9 members. Could they add some schools to get their numbers & prosperity up? Possibly, but who? Honestly, it sorta makes more sense for Louisiana Tech to be in the Sun Belt, since they've only been in the WAC for seven years and are by far the furthest east geographically. But any school they could add is either in a better conference (Pac 10 or Mtn West) or decided to leave the WAC recently. So the WAC remains in limbo...

Sun Belt - est. 2001
2001-2002N.Mexico St.IdahoN.TexasMid.TennLA-Laf.LA-MonroeArk.St.
2003N.Mexico St.IdahoUtah St.N.TexasMid.TennLA-Laf.LA-MonroeArk.St.
2004N.Mexico St.IdahoUtah St.N.TexasMid.TennLA-Laf.LA-MonroeArk.St.Troy

And finally we get to the Sun Belt, the doorway to the Division I-A. The only current school in the conference that hasn't moved up from DI-AA in the last 15 years is LA-Lafayette. Will these schools ever move on to bigger, more established conferences? That's iffy, if only because there's not many places to move to....


So after all that, where do we stand regarding conference realignment? Well first off, the mad rush to join a good conference that started in the mid 90's has tapered off in the last few years. We're probably never going to see another off-season where 10-12 schools switch conferences, mainly because things are settled and because there aren't any more chain-reaction spots. (For instance, when the ACC filled those spots with Miami & VA Tech, it set off a big chain reaction with the Big East "stealing" teams from C-USA, C-USA stealing teams from the WAC & MAC, and the WAC stealing teams from the Sun Belt.) The Mountain West might invite a top-tier team from another of the non-BCS conferences, and that might cause a mini-chain reaction, but not one that would involve that many teams or that many conferences. The game's already full at the top. So overall, we can expect the conferences to remain relatively unchanged for the foreseeable future. The only thing that could shake them up in such a major fashion again would be a drastic change to the structure of the BCS that throws the whole college football world into chaos. And while the BCS might be intimately familiar with chaos, we all know that the phrase "drastic change" isn't in its overseers vocabulary.


Anonymous said...

Where you seem to be missing the mark in your conclusion is thinking that another significant shift in the landscape of college football isn't going to happen.

There are a couple of places where moves would signal major transition from conference to conference. The first is an almost sure bet that the non-football schools of the Big East will split and either form their own conference or join an existing conference. This would leave the Big East with eight members. They would then be forced to expand. Seeing all the money they're leaving on the table with no conference championship game they would add four teams most likely picking all four from the C-USA.

That would then cause a merger between the remaining C-USA schools and Sun Belt. You see C-USA already predicted this last time evidenced by the teams they added. They moved their footprint to the west especting one day soon that Memphis, UCF, and East Carolina would leave the conference. Then they could move on North Texas Louisiana Tech and perhaps others.

C-USA's future isn't ally rosy though. The next domino that could fall or could actually be the trigger would be a defection of UTEP to the Mountain West Conference if they decide some day to expand to 12 teams. Logic would seem to dictace that a couple of the WAC schools would be a target for Mountain West expansion possibly Boise State, Fresno State, and Nevada.

Probably least likely would be the Pac 10 expanding to 12. If they added BYU, Utah, or Nevada to get to 12 that would have significant effects on the MWC, the WAC, C-USA, and Sun Belt as a series of dominos would fall, but again I believe that is the least likely scenario.

At any rate your analysis fails to recognized the biggest danger facing the largest number of schools and that's a difection of half of the Big East members that don't play football. And whether that happens or not you can be sure that the Big East will eventually add one of the following schools to get their football numbers up to nine. They are UCF, Memphis, or East Carolina.

Ed Gunther said...

While I agree that the Big East splitting into two would be a sizeable conference event, and that if it happened the football schools would try to add new members asap, I haven’t seen any evidence that the Big East basketball-only schools are planning such a defection. It wouldn’t be in their best interest – Big East basketball is their bread and butter, and they’re not going to upend nearly 30 years of tradition and success. Why would they? For what? Unless you have some insider info that the rest of us don’t, I just can’t see it happening, at least with the way things stand right now.

In thinking about it more, I can see the Big East trying to add possibly Memphis, which is top notch in basketball though so-so in football. I don’t see East Carolina or UCF making the grade though.

I mentioned Boise State and Fresno State to the Mtn West, but I think UTEP and Nevada are too shaky these past few years and don’t have enough oomph to impress the suits that decide BCS fates.

Matt Peloquin said...

You touch on many great points. We've discussed at great length on CollegeSportsInfo about the topic of upgrades, etc, and doubting that BCS conferences would ever consider FCS upgrades.

You should start a thread on our site about your article. It's the Conference Realignment forum, so you bound to get some great feedback about your article.

Great job!

SportsBIz said...

For the most part, I agree with what you have laid out. The Big
East was more likely to break in two at the end of their five year lock up period before the last round of TV contracts, but now, the deals with ESPN and CBS are too sweet to rock the boat.

You're right about the Big Ten and ND.

However, there has been a lot of grumbling in the Big XII and I'm not convinced thatit will manage to stay together if Texas can find a new home. Where that new home will be would determine how the other dominoes would fall. If it went to the Pac-10, taking Colorado with it, then Arkansas might move to the Big XII where it fits better geographically and the rivalries exist. It has expressed dissatisfaction with the SEC. Who else would land in the Big XII is an interesting question. If Arkansas left, who would the SEC take? Louisville might lobby hard, as would Memphis, but both UK and UT would likely try to keep them out.

Conference stability is tied directly to two things: TV contracts and the distribution of TV and Bowl money. That's why the Big XII will be the conference that tips things off if it happens.

Bigmrg74 said...

Two thoughts.
1. What would happen if the NCAA really started to crack down tougher on schools that fail to average 15,000 per home game? The big boys don't have to worry about this at all, but schools in the weaker conferences should worry about this.
2. For the PAC-10, what are your thoughts on say University of British Columbia joining them down the road in say 30 years or so?? Academically, they have pretty much the same profile as most of other PAC-10 schools. And the way has been cleared legally for Canadian schools to join the NCAA. Word is that they just want to wait a year or so right now because they would want to have D1 hockey, and right now with the D1 monetorum, they could only go to D2 for all of their sports.

Ed Gunther said...

Hmmm, interesting questions. Even though the NCAA might have some issues in picking its battles, I can't see them cracking down on schools under the 15,000 mark. Back in 2005 they relaxed the standards because some of the smaller schools were having issues, so relaxing them further would probably be the most logical course. I think as long as the overall attendance numbers don't drop too much, and as long as the TV money keeps growing, the NCAA won't make a big deal of it.

As far as UBC is concerned, they have the opposite problem of other possible Pac 10 additions - they've got the academic pedigree, but not the athletic one, which is just as important to the current members. The only DI-A conference I can see them joining right off the bat is the WAC - there's no way the Pac 10 (or even Mtn West) would add them - they're just too green. In order for them to even get to the consideration level other schools are at, they'll have to achieve a good amount of success at the DI-A level within another conference and in multiple sports. But that still doesn't get them over the main problem of the Pac 10 not wanting to expand. Of course, in 30 years who knows what the landscape of college football will look like.

Anonymous said...

Wow after reading this again, you look so wrong. But thats what happens when one piece of stability leaves. The domino effect begins.

Ed Gunther said...

Or that's what happens when you read something that was written 2 1/2 years ago and try to apply it to the craziness that has been the last two weeks. At least I was right about Boise St & the MtnWest, huh?

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